Seven-year-old Abdul-Hakeem Khalaf’s wide, slightly askew grin is beautiful enough, distracting from the disfiguring facial injuries left from a bombing in his hometown of Fallujah, Iraq.
“I’m happy because I’m going to have a new look,” he said Sunday through an interpreter, shortly after arriving in Pittsburgh for reconstructive surgery.
No More Victims, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization formed to help children injured in the war in Iraq get medical treatment in the United States, found doctors and surgeons at UPMC’s Eye & Ear Institute and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh willing to volunteer their services. A Massachusetts philanthropist donated $50,000 toward hospital costs, and Children’s will donate the rest, said Daniel Kovalik, an attorney for the United Steelworkers Union and volunteer for No More Victims.
Abdul-Hakeem is the fourth child the group has helped, bringing him and his father, Ismaeel Khalaf Hussein, to Pittsburgh for a series of surgeries over the next two to four months. They are staying with a Banksville family.
Before running off to play a video game, Abdul-Hakeem said he is excited — not afraid — about the surgeries.
His father, sitting in a living room among strangers, cried.
“I’m a father … sometimes I cry,” he explained. When he looks at his disfigured son, he is reminded of the attack and the unborn daughter it claimed.
Thirteen months after the war began, the family home was hit April 9, 2004, by bombs dropped by coalition forces as the family slept, said Hussein, 46.
His wife, eight months pregnant with her 10th child, was injured in the stomach and shoulder and lost the daughter she was carrying. She can no longer have children, lost movement of two fingers and needs more surgery the family cannot afford, Hussein said.
Their only daughter, Fatima, 14, and oldest son, Haquie, 21, were cut badly by shrapnel. Abdul-Hakeem’s face was burned and his left eye blinded.
After the attack, military forces surrounded Fallujah and no one was allowed to leave the city, even to go to the hospital, Hussein said. He took his injured wife and three children to a nearby doctor’s house, where one room was used as a clinic. Abdul was placed on the floor. The doctor began operating on him there but could not finish because so many injured residents flooded the clinic, Hussein said. He took his son home to the badly damaged house, expecting him to die.
He hung a white flag in hopes of notifying coalition forces he had an injured child.
The next day Abdul-Hakeem, accompanied by his uncle because his father was caring for the rest of his injured family, was airlifted by U.S. military helicopter to a hospital for treatment. After 12 days, he returned home, alive but badly disfigured, and needing reconstructive surgery Iraqi doctors did not have the equipment to do. A tracheotomy helped him breathe, and he ate for several months through a tube into his stomach.
His left eye was completely white above a jagged, torn lower lid. A skin graft from his leg was used to repair some of the facial damage, leaving a darker, depressed patch that pulls up the corner of his mouth.
Abdul-Hakeem, who will turn 8 on March 2, endured frequent teasing in school, his father said.
“He’s always crying. He doesn’t go out. He gave up,” he said.
Now he has hope. Touching his grafted cheek, Abdul-Hakeem said that is the area he most is looking forward to having fixed.
“I’m going to be better,” he said.
Hussein also is confident the doctors here can repair his son’s injuries.
“If they can put a new face to a woman (in France), they can fix this,” he said.
Hussein worries because doctors have told him he will not be able to be with his son continuously during his hospitalization.
“I don’t know what to do. I don’t want him to go a minute without me,” he said, wiping away tears.
When Marian Gumina, 49, of Banksville, read about Abdul-Hakeem’s plight in October, her 11-year-old son, Timothy, was recovering from a dog bite to his eye lids, which required two surgeries. Working two jobs to make ends meet, the divorced mother of two could not afford to make a donation but wanted to help.
She rearranged her three-bedroom home, bought a bunk bed and invited Hussein and Abdul-Hakeem to stay with her as long as necessary.
Hayder Khdaier, 19, of Beechview, who moved from Baghdad five years ago, volunteered to serve as Hussein’s and Abdul-Hakeem’s interpreter during their stay.
No More Victims still is raising the estimated $15,000 to $20,000 needed for Abdul-Hakeem’s and his father’s travel and related expenses. For more information, visit www.nomorevictims.org.
Hussein said he was mad at Americans after the attack, but the anger was short-lived.
“They should take Saddam, not us. Bush should have just killed Saddam,” he said. “We’re not Saddam loyalists. We didn’t fight for him. We’re just innocent people.”
He said he is grateful to Americans for their help and realizes they are losing sons and daughters to the war, too.
“American people like peace like we do,” he said. “We’re not at war with the American people.”